Every now and then there is a presentation or talk that you have to give, that you have been waiting a long time to do. This is one of mine that has been floating around in my head for sometime looking for the right occasion. DFTB17 was the right occasion.
*Just a warning before I start. Some of this stuff might bring up some emotions or feelings that you have kept hidden for some time. If you need help then I’ve put a list of contact addresses at the bottom of this post*
I want to take you back… Back to the year 1999. It was a year of partying purple pop pixies, the year trench-coated hacktivists first graced our screens and the year we did not colonize the moon. It was also the year that I first tried to kill myself.
Does this make me unusual in the world of medicine? Data from the 2013 Beyond Blue survey would suggest otherwise. They looked at data collected from over 12,000 doctors and 1000 medical students. 21% of doctors reported having been been diagnosed with, or treated for depression. 24.8% had had suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months and 2% had actually attempted suicide. Self-identified paediatricians reported slightly lower levels of depression (18.8%)
The rate of suicide amongst male doctors in Australia is around 14.8 per 100,000 person years, not much difference from the national average for non-medics (14.9 per 100,000). It is higher for male nurses and midwives (22.9 per 100,000 person years). The suicide rate for female doctors is almost 3 times the national average however. It is 6.4 per 100,000 person years compared with 2.8 per 100,000 for other women.
There have been some recent high profile cases that have made the press over the last year and brought this conversation into the public domain.
So what is depression?
On a purely neuropharmacological level it is thought to be brought about by an imbalance in the neurotransmitters serotonin and noradrenaline. But to those of us who have suffered from depression it is something much more than that.
It’s an illness, like a cancer, with its own set of genetic predeterminants that, if coupled with toxic exposures, may lead to disease in later life. If not detected or treated early it can grow outwards from its dark heart consuming the light until the suffering it causes leads to the death of its victim.
For me it was apathy, ennui, anhedonia. I couldn’t be bothered to do anything. My day was a perverse Groundhog rendition of wake, go to work, come home, go to bed, wake, go to work, come home, go to bed. If you looked in my fridge you would have found it bare but for the shrivelled remains of a capsicum. I couldn’t be bothered to go shopping for food. So in two months I lost around 10kg in weight.
A genetic predisposition to depression
Twin studies, beloved by psychologists, have shown a heritability of around 50% with first degree relatives showing a two or threefold increase in incidence of major depressive disorder.
Some of the things we are exposed to are a part of our humanity – love, life, death – but there are particularly toxic elements that medicos, especially those in training, are exposed to on a regular basis.
Like most who get into medical school I was in the academic top 5% at school, All of this changed when I got to university and was surrounded by a collection of academically above average individuals. Part of our ego-driven image is that we do not fail. This can lead to a crisis of ego when it inevitably does happen. The law of averages would suggest that at least half of us are going to fail an exam at some point. The problem is that which we give up when we are studying, often for long hours, when we are not at work. We miss out on family gatherings, exercise and the dying embers of a failing relationship.
The training program is long. It took me six years to get out of medical school and I have taken a very roundabout route to consultant-hood. During that time I have had to contend with moving posts every six months, studying for exams whilst working long, uncompensated hours, and moving to a different hemisphere to get the career I wanted. Prolonged exposure to this sort of workplace stress coupled with a lack of basic human needs such as sleep and access to decent meals may lead to anyone feeling overwhelmed and unsupported.
As a member of the ACEM working party on Discrimination, Bullying and Sexual Harassment (DBSH) I have been working hard to help figure out the prevalence of these negative contributors to physician mental health. No matter what the outcome of the recent ACEM survey I am sure the college will advocate for cultural change with the view that any reduction in DBSH behaviours will reduce the risk of mental health disorders amongst FACEMs and trainees alike.
The truth and consequences of depression
There is an undeniable stigma attached to mental illness. It is something that stops people asking for help. Doctors, especially those still in training, feel that admitting to mental health issues might imply a general lack of coping skills. This can lead to the phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’ – turning up to work when you shouldn’t. But this means colleagues have to work just that little bit harder to cover and this doesn’t go down well with the team.
The perceived need for mandatory reporting to health care regulating authorities, both at a state and national level, is a disincentive for doctors to seek help. Currently, in Australia, WA is the only state that does not require mandatory reporting. Whilst the language is wooly, if a doctor is perceived to be impaired, then they should be reported to the regulatory authorities – the Medical Board of Australia and the Australian Health Practitioners Regulatory Authority. This could lead to restrictions of practice or occasionally suspension – something that no doctor wants on their permanent record.
The myth of resilience
Despite being profoundly unwell I continued to go into work, do my ward rounds, dictate my clinic letters. My job was a mask, hiding the real me. And it was easy to answer, “How was your weekend?” with a trite, “Fine, thank you” and “How are you feeling?” with the same.
Doctors are expected to cope with anything thrown at them – a failed neonatal resus, a knife wielding ice addict, an extra hour of paperwork – without it barely ruffling their (non-existent) white coats. Amongst certain senior clinicians the thought is that the increase in mental health issues amongst junior staff is because they are just not tough enough, that they are not resilient enough to make it through the work day. It’s the “I worked 120 hour weeks on a one in two on-call roster. There was barely enough time to take a leak, let alone eat a meal. And I made it through unscathed and you can too!” approach to mentoring. This is usually coupled with the medical staffing trying to fix the problem by creating resilience and mindfulness training programs for the juniors who are then burdened with yet more to do. You don’t tell the doctor working in an abusive environment to be more toughen up, to be more resilient, you try to fix the system.
Does speaking or writing about suicide make it more likely that others will follow suit?
When I started researching this topic for my talk I wondered if it might provoke anxiety in my audience. The simulation literature is full of how to create a psychologically safe learning environment but how does one do this if one is giving a twenty minute talk? The reporting of suicides in traditional and social media have been associated with an increase in suicide rates. People who are at risk may be drawn to stories of celebrity deaths especially when the behaviour is glamorized. You can find a great guide on responsible reporting on the MindFrame website.
All right now?
So that’s it? A failed suicide attempt, a brief inpatient stay, some strong medication with odd side effects and I’m cured? Depression is not the sort of illness that just disappears. Like a cancer, it may go into remission with the right treatment, but that does not mean it has gone for good.
It’s not all about me
Whilst my talk and this accompanying blogpost are a form of catharsis, there is a point, two points, in fact, that I wanted the audience to take away with them.
There is nothing wrong with admitting you have a problem and need help.
WE need to change the system, the way we treat each other, if we want to really make a difference with regard to physician mental health.
If you need help or any of this really resonates with you then you may want to make an appointment with your GP – you do have one, right? Alternatively, here are a few services available in Australia.
Lifeline – 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636
Victoria – Victorian Doctors Health Program – website – (03) 9495 6011
Queensland – Doctors Health Advisory Service – 07 3833 4352
ACT – Doctors Health Advisory Service – 9437 6552
New South Wales – Doctors Health Advisory Service – 02 9437 6552
South Australia -Doctors Health Advisory Service – 08 8273 4111
Northern Territory -Doctors Health SA – 08 8366 0250 xxxx
Western Australia – Doctors Health Advisory Service – 08 9321 3098
Tasmania – Victorian Doctors Health Program – 03 9495 6011
New Zealand – Doctors Health Advisory Service – 0800 471 2654
Beyond Blue Doctors Mental Health Program
Life in the Fast Lane – Physician Suicide by Andrew Tabner
Self Compassion by Dr Kristin Neff
The Mental Health of Doctors – A systematic literature review – August 2010 from Beyond Blue
The National Mental Health Survey of Doctors and Medical Students – October 2013 from Beyond Blue
Bright PR. Depression and suicide among physicians. Curr Psychiatr. 2011;10(4):16-30.
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Hill AB. Breaking the Stigma—A Physician’s Perspective on Self-Care and Recovery. New England Journal of Medicine. 2017 Mar 23;376(12):1103-5.
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Pirkis J, Blood W. Suicide and the news and information media. Commonwealth of Australia. 2010 Feb.